Director General of WIPO welcomes signs of Progress in Recognition of Indigenous People's Rights

Geneva, August 9, 2005
Press Releases PR/2005/412

On the occasion of the International Day of the World's Indigenous People, on August 9, 2005, the Director General of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), Dr. Kamil Idris, welcomed the progressive steps being taken by the international community towards effective recognition and enjoyment of the rights of indigenous peoples, and greater respect for their distinct cultures, communities and values. He said that “the United Nations family is taking encouraging steps internationally to respond to the needs and aspirations of the world's indigenous peoples, and to enhance their effective participation in policy processes and dialogue on matters that are of concern to them”. He expressed WIPO's continuing commitment to promoting recognition and respect for the rights and concerns of indigenous peoples within this context and added that from the perspective of the law and policy of intellectual property (IP), these steps “translated into greater respect and recognition for the cultural and intellectual framework and knowledge systems in which traditional cultural expressions (TCEs), traditional knowledge (TK) and associated genetic resources are developed, maintained, and transmitted to future generations within the traditional or customary context”.

Dr. Idris underlined the fundamental need for an approach which respected and recognized the concerns and aspirations of indigenous people as this helped to catalyse dialogue and offered pathways towards the development of practical and legal solutions. He said that this was a multi-faceted approach which had “legal, practical, social or cultural, and procedural dimensions, and it must be sustained and holistic.”

The Director General also noted that “the voice and experience of indigenous groups have been a vital contribution” to WIPO's work in this area both in terms of the invaluable insights provided in the initial stages of this work and their important and growing contribution in international debates on this subject. He said their participation “has enriched the debate and brought to the international discussions the indispensable voice of indigenous and local communities.” He further noted that important practical and procedural steps have been taken within WIPO to enhance the participation of indigenous communities in international debates in this area.


WIPO's work in the field of IP and TK, TCEs or folklore and genetic resources was initiated in 1998 shortly after Dr. Idris took over leadership of the Organization. These activities built on WIPO's past work on folklore, which dates back several decades and is already reflected in the protection of folklore in various international instruments, including WIPO treaties, and in many national laws. In 1998 and 1999, however, a conscious choice was made to initiate the new program by consulting directly with the traditional holders and custodians of TK, TCEs/folklore and genetic resources, through a series of fact-finding missions, in some 60 locations around the world. This gave an important opportunity to learn directly from the communities concerned about their needs and expectations. The lessons and guidance given during these dialogues have been central to WIPO's continuing work. This work has in recent years been focussed in the Intergovernmental Committee on Intellectual Property and Traditional Knowledge, Genetic Resources and Folklore (the IGC) as an important policy forum for these issues.

WIPO's current work is aimed at developing a shared understanding of how best to protect TK and TCEs against misappropriation and misuse, thus assisting the holders and custodians of TK and TCEs to exercise greater authority over how these vital elements of their cultural identity are used and disseminated, and reinforcing the legal aspect of respect and recognition. Community and national experiences in this area are diverse, but provide rich lessons for all. Greater mutual understanding and the lessons of experience are leading to the emergence of some important common themes and principles. A particular theme has been to clarify how intellectual property-type principles can apply, such as in establishing the right for traditional holders to determine who uses the TK and TCEs they have custody over, and in what circumstances, and more generally as a contribution towards serving the interests articulated by holders of TK and custodians of TCEs. Current work focusses in particular on suggested objectives and principles, in the form of draft provisions, for the IP-type protection of TK and TCEs which are being discussed by WIPO member states and other stakeholders, including many indigenous groups. These objectives and principles are helping to catalyse dialogue and development of practical and legal measures at the community, national and regional levels, and may also contribute to strengthened international arrangements.

The voice and experience of indigenous groups have been a vital contribution to this work. Some 120 observer organisations have been especially accredited to the IGC, many of which represent indigenous communities.

Important practical and procedural steps have been taken to enhance the participation of indigenous communities in the work of the IGC. Each session of the IGC now commences with a panel session, chaired by a representative of an indigenous or local community, in which representatives of indigenous peoples and other traditional communities can inform the IGC participants of their community experiences and concerns with protection of TK and TCEs. The WIPO website contains a page dedicated to receiving comments, statements and papers by those organizations and communities accredited to the IGC. The draft substantive documents of the IGC reflect consultation with and substantive comments from indigenous communities, and these draft documents in turn provide ideas and materials for processes in other fora aimed at addressing the needs and concerns of indigenous peoples. This work has been reinforced further by case studies on the protection of TCEs and TK, including the ‘Minding Culture' series authored by indigenous lawyer Terri Janke. The WIPO General Assembly will, in September this year, consider a proposal for a voluntary fund that would directly support the participation of indigenous and local communities in the work of the IGC.

WIPO has participated in the work of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, and is an active member of the Inter-Agency Support Group on Indigenous Issues.

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